By JOY BROWN
Ever wonder what it’s like to work a 22-hour shift in subzero temperatures? Findlay Water Distribution Department employees don’t, because they’ve done it.
A particularly troublesome water main break on Rector Avenue this winter required replacement of a 30-foot section, which took them that long to complete.
That job was one of more than 100 water main breaks and waterline freezes that workers have contended with this season. An unusually cold winter has wreaked havoc on the city’s older pipes.
From Dec. 13 through Thursday, 50 water mains had ruptured in the city, said Jeff Betts, water distribution supervisor. There were 38 main breaks last winter and 23 in 2012. Findlay’s yearly average is somewhere between 70 and 80, he said.
The frozen ground has been shifting the pipes and causing many of the breaks, said Jeff Newcomer, Water Treatment Plant superintendent.
Flooding hasn’t historically been a culprit, Newcomer said.
While the number of water main breaks is running above average, freezes of waterlines that connect to the mains have soared this season. They’ve totaled 134, Betts said. Last winter, there were eight, and in 2012 there were only three, he said.
“We’ve had areas of the city that have never froze before,” Newcomer said.
Officials have been pleading with residents and business owners to let their faucets drip, which can help prevent such freezes. But at some places, even after workers have thawed a line, they’ve had to return because people haven’t heeded their advice.
“We’re not happy when we have to do that,” Newcomer said.
Usually, freezes happen at the water meters, he said. But this year’s snow pack has covered many meters and acted as an insulator. The blockages have been happening further down the line, closer to the mains, he said.
Water main breaks take precedence over waterline freezes, but otherwise incidents are handled in the order they are reported.
“We feel bad when we can’t get to everybody at once,” Newcomer said. “Some people are more understanding than others. They complain that they have family coming into town, that they have kids in diapers and need water in the house. We do the best we can.”
Sometimes a fix takes longer because the city is waiting to hear back from the Ohio Utilities Protection Service before it digs. But Newcomer said computer equipment, bought years ago, can efficiently pinpoint a leak’s location, thereby saving time and effort compared to the former trial-and-error method that relied on initial digging where water was seeping to the surface.
The work of a water distribution employee is often thankless, Newcomer said, even during a winter like this.
The underground temperature is warmer than above, and workers are somewhat protected from the elements. The welder they use for thawing provides some heat. But it’s still a dirty, wet and cold job, he said.
And it’s lately been a long one. The department has accrued more overtime than usual, Newcomer said.
“With all the overtime, the sick time, and the cold weather, the guys are getting burned out,” Newcomer said.
They do, however, get compliments from their bosses.
“They’ve done a hell of a job this winter,” Newcomer said.
City officials, like others, are welcoming this week’s thaw, to a certain extent. But Newcomer and Betts say they’re concerned about more freezing.
“We may have the same situation again” soon, Betts said.